The Washington Examiner was the first news source to report that Republican senator, Ben Sasse, said in a “campaign telephone town hall call that went to about 17,000 Nebraskans”, among other things, that President Donald Trump trash-talks evangelicals behind their backs”. After briefly citing some points of agreement with Trump, Sasse “began to unload” on the President.
Sasse identified a litany of issues he has with Trump – careening “from curb to curb” on COVID (first ignoring it, then going “into full economic shutdown mode”), selling out allies, “the way he treats women”, spending “like a drunken sailor” and flirting with white supremacists – but the issue I want to focus on is the charge that Trump “mocks evangelicals behind closed doors”.
Sasse commented, “I think the overwhelming reason that President Trump won in 2016 was simply because Hillary Clinton was literally the most unpopular candidate in the history of polling.” It’s true, and most evangelicals I know said they were voting “only” for Trump as “the lesser of two evils”. They couldn’t stomach another Clinton presidency, perpetuating that inbred political machine in Washington that is openly hostile to concerns of evangelicals.
So, where along the timeline did Donald Trump become our champion? When did he stop being an evil? (Albeit an ostensibly lesser one)
A little googling reveals (for those who’s memory is short) that “long before” Donald Trump ran for President of the United States, he was a Democrat. Donald was registered as a Democrat from 2001-2009. Have we forgotten the criticism leveled against The Donald by Jeb Bush? “He was a Democrat longer than he was a Republican. He’s given more money to Democrats than he has to Republicans.” (Including Hillary Clinton)
To be completely accurate, Donald Trump changed his party affiliation at least five times since 1987, when he registered as a Republican. He changed to Independent in 1999, to Democrat in 2001, to Republican in 2009, to Independent in 2011, to Republican again in 2012. (See Political positions of Donald Trump at Wikipedia) But should that give us comfort?
On the issue that has been historically most influential on the Evangelical vote, abortion, Donald Trump has been described as shifting “from pro-choice to pro-life only as he planned a presidential run”. Robb Ryerse, a pastor at Vintage Fellowship in Fayetteville, AR, said earlier this year, “I personally believe that the President is cynically using pro-life voters for his own electoral purposes and doesn’t actually care about protecting innocent life at all.”
The LA Times was less skeptical in its description of Trump’s turnabout recently, calling him “a late convert” to the pro-life cause. Noting Trump’s position in 1999 (“pro-choice in every respect”), Trump told the March For Life crowd in Washington this year that “every life is worth protecting”.
The Times added: “Trump is counting on the support of his base of conservative activists to help bring him across the finish line.” While I don’t share the Times’ anti-pro-life stance, that’s what concerns me – that Trump is saying simply what a large block of his constituents want to hear. (To be fair, my skepticism runs deep with all politicians, especially in campaign mode.)
After all, moderates aren’t tolerated by voters anymore. Both political parties have “taken harder-line positions for and against abortion rights”. Trump had to choose sides. As former White House Press Secretary, Ari Fleischer, said recently, “There used to be a middle”, but now candidates must choose sides in an increasingly polarizing political environment.
Digging deeper, Trump’s political views have shifted from moderate populist (2003) to liberal-leaning populist to moderate populist (2003-2011) to moderate populist conservative (2011-12), to Libertarian leaning conservative (2012-15) to “hard-core conservative” just before the 2016 election. Interestingly, he back-stepped to Libertarian-leaning conservative, then moderate conservative after the election, but he may now (again) be described as “hard-core conservative” now that he campaigns for re-election. (See Political positions of Donald Trump ibid.)
I can’t help noticing that his hard-core conservativism seems to be timed with election campaigning, and that’s the thing that troubles me about him. So, I began wondering today: what are his long-standing convictions? From my reading, I would say populism, authoritarianism, and nationalism. Let’s take a closer look at those threads of Donald Trump’s political life.
Populism emphasizes the idea of catering to “the people”, rather than “the elite”, which is ironic, of course, because people don’t get much more privileged than Donald Trump. He talks like a common person and seems to identify (or want to identify) with common people, but his definition of “the elite” is, no doubt, different than yours and mine.
As I think about his populist leanings, “wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction” (Matt. 7:13 NIV) are the words that come to my mind. His populist leanings provide some explanation for the political vacillation over the years. He seems to blow with the wind. A spiritually minded person might call this wind “the spirit of the age”. (Not that there is only one spirit of the age.)
In his speech and demeanor, Trump plays well to the common crowd. His authoritarianism may, also, be seen as strength from that same element, offering hope to them, perhaps, that Trump will put their bullies in their place.
Despite being an authoritarian, though, Trump shows disdain for such authority as the First Amendment to the Constitution, the separation of powers, and federalism, among others. (See Political positions of Donald Trump id.) His words and actions reveal an attitude that he is above the law. Comments suggesting that he would not concede the presidency if he fails to get the votes, and similar things he says, reveal his attitudes.
The same attitude he takes toward the rule of law seems to inform how he views God. When asked a question from a CNN reporter before the last election, whether he had ever asked God for forgiveness, Trump responded: “I am not sure I have…. I don’t think so.” (As if the question and answer had little real import)
About a year later, when asked about his previous comments, Trump said simply, “I am good”, to explain why he doesn’t need to ask for forgiveness.
Are these just the comments of a person who is ignorant of the Christian faith? Or are they more pernicious than that?
Scripture is clear: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8) Even if we give Trump some benefit of the doubt on these comments, they reveal a shockingly cavalier attitude about the authority of God – an attitude that Trump sees no reason to change.
Many argue that Trump was not elected to be a pastor, priest or Sunday school teacher. They urge fellow believers to overlook his failings because he supports evangelical concerns. But, does he really?
This question is the real gist of my thinking today.
His own longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, published a book recently that describes Trump as “a cheat, a liar, a fraud, a bully, a racist, a predator, a con man” who has “hatred and contempt” for his predecessor, Barack Obama.
Evangelicals may be tempted to cheer him in his contempt for the former President, but Paul clearly told us that God establishes governing authorities, and rebelling against them, therefore, is the same thing as rebelling against God. (Rom. 13:1-2) Lest we gloss over that statement, we should note that Paul said it when Nero – the man who had Paul to death – was the governing authority. Dare we not take it seriously?
It doesn’t matter that the governing authority has political views contrary to ours; respect is the right attitude according to the Apostle Paul. Thus, the authoritarianism that defines Trump is one-sided and anti-biblical. He is an authoritarian only when the authoritarian is him!
(To be clear, I am not urging a lack of respect for President Trump. Respect, though, is not antithetical to accountability or acknowledging the truth. We can pray for the President, respect his authority and be critical of him at the same time – especially when he says and does things that are clearly that reflect badly on his supporters.)
The other constant thread that seems to run through Trump’s waffling politics is nationalism. I could say much about the anti-biblical nature of nationalism, but this article is already running long.
In the end, I come back to my skepticism about Trump’s motives in courting the evangelical vote. In Cohen’s book, he described a meeting with “prominent evangelical leaders” at Trump Tower where they laid hands on Trump and prayed for him. After they left, Cohen claims Trump said, “Can you believe that bulls–t? Can you believe people believe that bulls–t?”
Less than a month ago, McKay Coppins wrote the following in an article for The Atlantic: “Former aides told me they’ve heard Trump ridicule conservative religious leaders, dismiss various faith groups with cartoonish stereotypes, and deride certain rites and doctrines held sacred by many of the Americans who constitute his base.” (See Trump Secretly Mocks His Christian Supporters)
His conclusions are not conjecture. They are summarized from firsthand accounts:
“Former aides told me they’ve heard Trump ridicule conservative religious leaders, dismiss various faith groups with cartoonish stereotypes, and deride certain rites and doctrines held sacred by many of the Americans who constitute his base.”
The article includes descriptions of Trump being awed by “the hustle” and “racket” of wealthy televangelists like Benny Hinn and the viewership of Joel Osteen. Money, it seems, talks to money. Coppins writes,
“To those who have known and worked with Trump closely, the notion that he might have a secret spiritual side is laughable. ‘I always assumed he was an atheist,’ Barbara Res, a former executive at the Trump Organization, told me. ‘He’s not a religious guy,’ A. J. Delgado, who worked on his 2016 campaign, told me. ‘Whenever I see a picture of him standing in a group of pastors, all of their hands on him, I see a thought bubble [with] the words ‘What suckers,’ Mary Trump, the president’s niece, told me.”
All of these things leave me wondering what Faustian bargain we have made. Trump has delivered on many of his offers, appointing conservative justices, saying the rights things for pro-life audiences and allowing evangelical leaders to dine with him, lay hands on him and pray for him.
I can understand and was reluctantly on board with choosing the lesser of two evils in 2016, but we are left, now, with the evil that we acknowledged, albeit the lesser. Instead of demanding accountability, we have simply doubled down in our support. Instead of being candid about the shadow Trump casts on the Gospel, we have turned a blind eye.
Trump has more than gotten his part of that bargain. I fear that we have yet to collect on ours. Oh, we have gotten some of the things Trump offered us, but they come with a price – the unintended consequences of our bargain.
I fear we may be paying that price for generations. The damage to our credibility is immense.
As I read the eschatological provisions of the Bible, I see that things get much worse before Jesus comes. Apostacy grows. The very elect may even be deceived.
We have gained a small, temporary foothold in the fight for political power and influence in this United States of America, but the backlash may be apocryphal. Brace yourselves brothers and sisters. Perhaps, we can take some slight solace in the fact that we helped to usher in the apostacy that was always going to happen anyway.
(I sincerely hope that I am wrong on this dire prediction, but I fear I am not.)